Wow. What the world just watched, from Brussels to the UK to Helsinki, was the most tragic American foreign tour the world may have ever seen. Except this wasn’t some outdated boy band embarrassingly pining for yester-decade; this was the American President questioning the loyalty of the F.B.I., vilifying foreign allies and jealously defending his favorite autocrat, Russian President Vladimir Putin, like a schoolgirl would for a celebrity crush. It was like someone created a sequel to Steve Carell’s forgettable film Dinner for Schmucks. Except President Trump was unquestionably the biggest schmuck of them all.
President Trump began his tour of miserables first by belittling Germany as “totally controlled by Russia.” He followed that up by calling the EU an enemy of America. Then he moved on to Britain, where he criticized Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of Brexit and immigration policies, and encouraged her to sue the EU. When he tried to deny this as fake news, audio files of it were released to the public. Oops. As a gossip magazine cherry-on-top, Trump managed to insult Queen Elizabeth II.
The bar for Trump’s buffoonery is so low that had this been the end of the tour, all of these apparent missteps could likely have been overlooked as well-intentioned but poorly handled gaffes. Alas, it was not. Trump continued on to Finland, where his meeting and joint press conference with Putin culminated into perhaps the biggest “WTF?!” moment of his already “WTF?!” time in office. The press took this rare opportunity to hound Trump and Putin on Russia’s “alleged” interference in the 2016 US presidential election. When given roughly five different opportunities to publicly condemn Putin and Russia’s actions, Trump declined them all. But that wasn’t enough. Trump had to up the ante by outright defending Putin as a man of his word; then shifting the conversation to criticize some of his favorite targets in the DNC and intelligence community; then using his favorite cliché by claiming that “both countries are responsible” for Russian aggression. Man, does this guy love to hide behind a false equivalence when he’s afraid to pay a political price for doing the right thing.
On the home front, condemnation of the President has been swift and straightforward. Sen. John McCain remarked that Trump’s joint press conference with Putin was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Former CIA director John Brennan called it “nothing short of treasonous.” Predictably, the Twitterverse has already begun to question just what kind of dirt Putin may have on Trump that could justify such a brazen act of schmuck-like behavior. And it really is growing remarkably hard to deny that something really does smell fishy about Trump’s overt fondness of Putin. At this point, Putin may be the only man that Trump has yet to criticize or disparage in (perhaps) the entire world. It also seems that under every rock overturned in Trumplandia, light is shed on another shady, secretive Russian financial connection. We also now know from Robert Mueller’s new indictments that right after then-candidate Trump publicly called on the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails, Russian intelligence officers tried to do just that within the next 24 hours.
If we add up the sum of all of these parts, it starts to feel like we are in a much different sort of movie than an oddball dark comedy about this or that schmuck coming for dinner. Let’s remember that we’ve known Putin’s geopolitical goals since the 1990s have included destabilizing America with internal divisions, alienating Britain from Europe, and weakening the legitimacy of the EU. Trump managed to do all three of these things in under seven days and called it a victory. This context really does start to make this all feel more and more like spy film, one in which the tension over Trump’s Manchurian candidacy and Russian strings are about to be revealed in a momentous plot twist. Maybe Rudy Giuliani lets something slip during one of his chaotic televised rants. Or perhaps Beavis and Butthead Eric or Don Jr. get caught grabbing some money under the table. It would almost be cathartic, as it’s become harder to argue against proof of collusion than for it, despite Trump’s incessant tweets to the contrary.
However, I feel we’d be remiss to forget the old adage: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Despite the neat fit of Putin’s hand up Trump’s holster, the resolution of treasonous bribery still seems too perfunctory. Even if we were to remove the far-fetched logistics of secretive Trump-Putin communications, it would be hard to believe that Putin, a former spy and intelligence operative, would be satisfied with the largest kompromat in history being quite so…obvious. If you watched the Helsinki press conference, Putin was anything but subtle in his machismo. He allegedly showed up to his meeting with Trump an hour late, a tactic surely taken straight from The Art of the Deal to display dominance. Why would a leader go through such a parade of public strength if he already controlled the entire board?
That’s partly why I still feel, even after this week, that Trump is more the schmuck stuck in a bad comedy than a desperate fall-guy in a political thriller. We should remember that this man doesn’t need a pee tape to praise foreign strongmen; Trump already does so freely for China’s Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan. He likely cozies up to them because he admires their strength, while belittling Western leaders as weak, because we already know how little Trump thinks of the West’s democratic systems. Putin also has the best shield in the world defending him: Trump’s powerful, well-known ego. Unfortunately, Trump has backed himself into a mental corner, one in which admitting to Russian interference in the election suggests, to him, that he did not win his election fairly. And we already know that when it comes to choosing between a harsh reality and his incredibly shaky self-confidence, Trump will choose to nurture his self-confidence every time. Additionally, why would a man who ran on a strict “America First” platform care about the invasions of far-off and funny sounding places like Crimea and Ukraine anyway? Turning a blind-eye to minor faults is hardly novel in cases of blatant hero worship, as appears to be the case with Trump and his Russian idol.
If this is true then it is, of course, an abundance of riches for Putin. He doesn’t have to lift a finger, let alone mastermind an international blackmail scheme, to get what he wants. Instead, all he has to do is occasionally coax the pencil-thin ego of a longtime admirer and watch his wildest dreams come true. Trump is the best kind of schmuck: one who lets his own insecurities and shortcomings drive his failings. Putin is probably just happy that this is the schmuck he gets to bring to the stage. Or perhaps I’m the fool, one looking too earnestly for a plot when we just might be stuck in the midst of an honest shit-show. At this point, I couldn’t tell you if that is comforting or even more terrifying.